The little-known spark that helped ignite the Arab Spring is brought to light in Sami Tlili's forceful "Cursed Be the Phosphate," an awkward-sounding title for a clearly made, even elegant docu.

The little-known spark that helped ignite the Arab Spring is brought to light in Sami Tlili’s forceful “Cursed Be the Phosphate,” an awkward-sounding title for a clearly made, even elegant docu. In 2008, inhabitants of a Tunisian company-town dependent on phosphate extraction revolted against unsafe working conditions and government-supported corruption; the response from the Ben Ali regime was brutal, yet the Gafsa region temporarily withstood months of onslaught. Though unsuccessful and eclipsed by the events of 2011, the uprising exposed cracks in the dictatorship’s unassailability, paving the way for popular unrest. Docu fests and sidebars should pay attention.

Redeyef, near the Algerian border, is a dusty town of unpaved streets and few trees, completely dependent on the Gafsa Phosphate Co. (at least 25% of Tunisia’s economy is based on the mineral). Practically inured to mining accidents and nonexistent environmental regulations, the population finally rallied around the union when it became too obvious that cronyism dictated how diminishing employment contracts were given out. Long underrepresented in parliament, the region was rife with discontent, though in their early stages at the start of 2008, the protests were peaceful.

State-controlled media reported the marches as pro-Ben Ali parades, yet indie channel Al Hiwar told the truth, gathering others to the cause and infuriating the regime. The official response was devastating: The docu claims 30,000 police, more than the number of inhabitants, descended on the town, becoming an occupying force for six months. Homes were invaded, suspects were tortured and the social fabric was incinerated, with many fleeing to the mountains. Even now, post-revolution, the population feels abandoned, its grievances still not addressed despite pre-election lip-service from current ruling party, Ennahda.

It’s powerful stuff, made more so by Tlili’s poetic eye and deeply impressive skill at presenting the argument via a mix of interviews, archival footage and images of the region today, frequently shot with the camera mounted on a moving vehicle to propel the story forward. More information on the company itself, along with its appalling record of violations, would have been useful, but the argument still stands in all its bleak potency; Abu Dhabi’s award for best docu in the Arab world testifies to the effect.

Visuals occasionally suffer from digital harshness, which could be a projection problem. Protest songs provide appropriate musical accompaniment.

Cursed Be the Phosphate

Tunisia

Production

A Cinetelefilms, Nomadis Images production. Produced by Habib Attia, Dora Bouchoucha. Directed, written by Sami Tlili.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Hatem Nechi, Hazem Berrabah, Adonis Nadhem Romdhane; editors, Achraf Amri, Anis Hammami; music, Rabiaa Bouhrizi, Myriam Laabidi; sound, Houssen Ksouri; line producer, Lina Chaabane Menzli. Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (competing), Oct. 19, 2012. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Bechir Laabidi, Adel Jayar, Adnene Hajji, Moudhaffer Laabidi, Leila Khaled Laabidi, Haroun Halimi.

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